By 11:40 p.m., the parking lot at Montrose Crossing shopping center on Rockville Pike filled with the sounds of thumping music, roaring engines and screeching tires.

A crowd of "tuners" -- young drivers who spend thousands of dollars turning their everyday Hondas, Toyotas and Acuras into decked-out speed machines -- had gathered on a recent Saturday night.

"Is anybody racing?" Matt, a 21-year-old college student from Silver Spring, said into his cell phone. "Okay. If you hear about anything, call me back."

Like other street racers and spectators, Matt spoke on condition that his last name not be used. It wasn't the police he worried about as much as the insurance companies, he said. His car insurance was canceled after he got too many speeding tickets, he said, and he's trying to find affordable insurance as a "high-risk" driver.

Over the next three hours, Matt and two friends joined up with 30 other cars, driving between Montgomery and Prince George's counties in search of a race. These contests, which differ from drag racing, a sanctioned and regulated sport, can reach speeds of more than 120 mph.

Equipped with a police scanner, the racers could learn when officers were on the way, spread the word via cell phone and then scramble to another racing spot.

The night followed a script of young people driving fast for sport in a cat-and-mouse game played with police since cars first rolled off Henry Ford's assembly line. It also was the kind of night that makes police and parents cringe, especially after seven area crashes in the past three weeks left 14 young people, including a 3-year-old girl, dead.

Police said they believe at least two of those collisions in Montgomery County, resulting in four deaths, were related to racing. Speed was a factor in others as well.

Police in the Washington region blame the problem on a subculture of speeding. Street racing has surged in the area in the past three years, police said, particularly with the popularity of the 2001 racing movie "The Fast and the Furious."

Also catching teenagers' attention, police said, are racing video games in which drivers crash and keep going, with no one getting hurt or killed.

Meanwhile, police said, street races have become more deadly because of an increasingly dangerous mix: The cars of choice have gotten smaller -- compacts have largely replaced the muscle cars of the 1960s -- while the roads on which they're speeding have become more crowded and dangerous.

And organized racers have become harder to catch, with spectators monitoring police radios and spotters posted down the road watching for patrol cars.

"The crowd is gone before we even get near it," said Cpl. Gary Lewis, who's helping lead Montgomery's crackdown on speeding.

As the phenomenon grows, Montgomery officers have looked to their counterparts in Fairfax and Prince George's counties, who have been combating late night racing for years with undercover officers, videotaped races and constant patrols of the spots where racers gather.

Montgomery police said they believe most high-speed collisions involving young drivers result from impromptu races between stoplights or inexperienced drivers trying to impress a carload of friends. Police are targeting them with an education campaign, including an enhanced segment in 10th-grade health classes on the dangers of aggressive driving.

Law enforcement efforts also are aimed at drivers engaged in organized racing. In such races, two cars line up next to each other on an open stretch -- usually a dark, deserted road several miles outside the Capital Beltway -- while anywhere from a dozen to several hundred spectators pull off to the side. Someone starts the race with a wave of an arm, and the cars race a quarter-mile on a straight road, averaging about 90 mph in 14 seconds, participants said.

A variation is the "highway race," in which two cars whip along, weaving in and out of traffic. They can go on for several miles until one of the drivers gives up by taking an exit or backing off.

"I've heard of people getting up to 160 to 170 mph on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in the middle of the night," Matt said.

He estimates that there are 20 to 30 well-known racing spots across the region. Friday and Saturday nights are spent driving around and working the cell phones, trying to find the hot spot of the night. Police know the locations, Matt said, but racers try to keep officers guessing by rotating among different spots.

His friend Whitney, 19, who works at Starbucks, said she watches for the excitement.

"It's like an addiction," she said. "What got me was the rush of knowing we could get caught and watching something that's illegal. It's really cool."

Last Saturday night, Montgomery police showed up at the Montrose Crossing shopping center parking lot about 11:30 p.m. Three officers began citing drivers for such equipment violations as illegally altered suspensions.

The crowd started breaking up. Matt and two friends headed for two popular racing spots in Prince George's. Matt's girlfriend was behind the wheel. Matt can't afford the "high-risk" insurance policy with a $6,000 annual premium but still enjoys watching the races.

The hunt for a good race is much like the search for a high school party. Groups of young people drive around, hitting one supposed gathering spot after another. Before reaching one popular racing strip off Route 1, Matt heard over his cell phone that everyone had vanished because police had arrived.

On the way to another racing area in Largo about 1:15 a.m., the police scanner broadcast that officers were in the area. The group headed to a nearby shopping center parking lot to wait until police left.

A souped-up red Toyota Supra did a 30-yard sprint through the parking lot, tires screeching and filling the air with a thick cloud of white smoke and the acrid smell of burning rubber.

"Only a car with a good amount of power can burn tires that well," Matt said admiringly, adding that the car had won two races already that night. "The Supra beat the Neon by a car. Then the Supra raced the Corvette and beat it."

In Fairfax County, police went undercover by leasing souped-up cars of their own, finding out where the hot racing spots were and videotaping them secretly from helicopters.

The videotapes helped police win convictions, they said.

Prince George's police said they have videotaped races and then sent letters to both the car owner and the insurance company saying the car had been caught racing on tape. Some insurance companies canceled drivers' policies, Cpl. Michael Rose said.

Officers also have gone to race-gathering spots to write citations for anything they could find, including broken headlights. Police then entered those drivers' names into a database to track who was frequenting the racing spots.

"It shows them that you're watching," Rose said.

But racers and spectators such as Matt said most crackdowns don't last long. Racers will simply stay home for a couple of weeks or move from one spot to another to stay one step ahead of police.

About 2 a.m., after the racers spent 45 minutes squealing tires and fishtailing through tight circles in a Prince George's parking lot, police showed up in an unmarked white sedan with a loudspeaker.

"Move it out!" the officers shouted. "Let's roll!"

The two officers never got out of their car as the group roared away. Matt and his friends headed a few miles up the road to a gas station parking lot, another gathering place.

By 2:20 a.m., the driver of a red Dodge Neon had waited long enough. He revved his engine, shouting, "Let's do it here!"

It wasn't exactly a race, but it was better than nothing. Another car joined him in a 50-yard dash through the lot. Tires screeched. Smoke filled the air. Out of nowhere, a Maryland State Police cruiser pulled up, a trooper shouting at the drivers to leave the lot.

It was getting late, and Matt and his friends decided to call it a night. They would return another weekend, searching again for the next great race.

The Montrose Crossing shopping center parking lot in Rockville is a magnet for drivers of souped-up vehicles, street racers and appreciative spectators. A Maryland state trooper tells young men to leave a shopping center parking lot in Largo, where groups gather to show off and admire their vehicles.